After a showing of my film, Pig Business, at the Royal Society of Arts on 13th November 2008, Channel 4, which was scheduled to broadcast the film in the New Year, received two letters from lawyers acting for the main focus in the film, Smithfield Foods of America, the world’s biggest pig producer and processor.
Fearing the legal might of a $12 billion company threatening to sue, Channel 4 pulled my film just before broadcast on February 3rd 2009.
To prepare for the worst, Channel 4 made changes to accord with England’s business-friendly libel laws and the UK TV’s fairness standards, administered by OFCOM. Despite a further two threatening letters, Channel 4 broadcast the film on its More 4 channel on June 30th.
In the US, the Constitution’s First Amendment enshrines free speech as a right. So, if you allege in good faith that a public company is causing harm, as long as the allegations are not made maliciously, the company has to prove that it has not caused the harm.
In England however, the burden of proof is reversed. The person making the allegation has to prove their case with scientific analyses, court judgments or credible witnesses. So, if a Polish worker says that his doctor told him his lungs are damaged because of the gases inhaled during intensive working conditions in one of Smithfield’s factory farms, I have to prove that the worker is telling the truth. Not always an easy job. Particularly if that doctor now works for Smithfield testing the health of potential employees and it is not possible for outsiders to acquire the worker’s medical records. And proving the causal connection between the gases, like hydrogen sulphide and ammonia, and this particular worker’s illness is not cheap.
The reason why the American courts accept that allegations like this can be published is because there is plenty of evidence from peer-reviewed reports, court transcripts and newspaper articles all making the point that workers in these intensive factories become sick by inhaling vapours from degrading animal faeces.
But in England, the evidential bar is much higher. The High Court requires the judgment of a Polish court or I have to find at least 5 other workers who dare break their silencing contract with one of the wealthiest companies in Poland, to back up the 2 workers describing worker their work related illnesses.
A first class ticket to libel land…
Though America’s libel laws respect freedom of speech for people and the press, there is always the threat of libel tourism – where the lawsuit against the film would be brought to the UK to enjoy our corporate-friendly libel laws.
The letters sent by Smithfield's legal team have succeeded in scaring the insurance companies away from insuring the film unless I pay the first $500,000 excess or lobotomise the film. Without the insurance, not even NGOs will screen the film.
Not even the tabloids are immune from Smithfield’s threatening letters: both The Daily Mail and The Evening Standard have received warning letters for reporting about the film. So did the Polish TV station Szczecin TV in 2006, and the Polish National Geographic magazine. The latter was requested - unsuccessfully - to apologise for an article that reported on water and air pollution near a hog farm or face legal action.
On the day of a showing at the Barbican arts centre in London on 27 May 2009, Smithfield's lawyers told the Barbican’s management that the film was 'defamatory'. As a result, the audience was made to wait half an hour while the executive producer and myself were told that the showing would only go ahead if we signed a document agreeing to indemnify the Barbican.
Putting it on my website would apparently expose me to Smithfield’s litigation in every jurisdiction. So the message will have to be spread guerilla-style - i.e. below Smithfield’s radar. For another nine days, the film will be on Channel 4’s web site.
It is also available free of charge to anyone who wishes to give a private screening.
There is only one way for you to make up your own mind on whether this film is defamatory or fair and balanced reporting – you’ll have to watch it.
Tracy Worcester is an environmental campaigner and filmmaker. Visit the pigbusiness website here.